RENO, Nev. (AP) — A memorial apple orchard has been planted and a separate pollinator garden is planned at the University of Nevada, Reno in memory of a former student whose final wishes before her death last year from brain cancer included finding a place on campus where food could be grown to feed others.
Jessica Younger Dickens, who grew up in an agricultural community in Northern California, was diagnosed with cancer in 2017. She died in March 2020 at age 39.
“Carrying out her wishes is important to me,” said her widower, Yani Dickens, interim director at UNR’s counseling center.
More than 120 semi-dwarf cider and table apple trees were planted in her honor in April at the new Jessica Younger Dickens Memorial Orchard at UNR’s Valley Road Experiment Station. The pollinator garden is planned for outside her office at UNR’s medical school, where Younger Dickens worked.
“I’ll be able to see the memorial orchard grow and know that it will be used and appreciated for research and science and possibly further local gardeners’ knowledge of what grows here and also feed people,” Dickens told the Reno Gazette Journal. “I’ll always remember Jessica, but it’s nice to know there are places related to values of hers that other people can go visit and feel connected to her.”
Younger Dickens graduated from UNR in 2003 with a degree in business administration and started working at the university’s school of medicine in 2007. She eventually became chief of staff for Thomas Schwenk, the school’s dean.
“Jessica wasn’t really just my chief of staff,” Schwenk said. “She was the school’s chief of staff. Jessica pushed colleagues when they needed to be pushed and supported them when they needed support.”
Younger Dickens grew up in Alturas, California, the daughter of a farmer and rancher. She liked that her dad fed people, Dickens said, “and I knew she really wanted people to appreciate where their food came from.”
“In 2017, when she first got sick, she met with friends and family on campus to tell them about her illness and her plans to get better, and in case she didn’t get better, she said one of the things she always wanted on campus was an edible garden.”
After her death, Dickens and others looked at planting an edible garden outside her office at the medical school. It didn’t seem like the right fit, so they eventually settled on UNR’s experimental station.
The half-acre organic apple orchard will propagate antique cider and eating apples from throughout Washoe Valley. Table apples grown at the orchard will go to Pack Provisions, the university’s food pantry.
Melinda Yerka, assistant professor of agriculture at UNR, said the trees should mature and start producing in about five to seven years. A combination of cuttings from heirloom varieties from around Washoe Valley were grafted onto strong rootstock.
Some of the apples at the orchard are cuttings from a mystery apple tree in the Dickens’ backyard.
“Jessica’s fruit will grow down there now, too,” Dickens said.
Yerka and others at UNR plan to work with UC Davis to identify the varieties of apples in the orchard and propagate them. The apples will also be studied for how flavor is passed down through generations and how texture and flavor are influenced by the environment.
“We want to study the DNA that makes them really tasty,” Yerka said. “Maybe we can grow kinds that are more drought-tolerant and still have this tasty flavor.”